CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – The Browns dug themselves a quick hole but they didn’t lay down.
Instead, they almost climbed out of it and made the favorites to win the AFC North sweat Sunday afternoon.
After rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer’s opening series that saw the Browns lose 9 yards followed by a blocked punt that was recovered for a touchdown, the Browns rallied to pull within 3 late in the fourth quarter but the Steelers were able to hang on for a 21-18 win.
Although it was their NFL-record 13th straight Week 1 defeat and 18th in 19 years since the franchise returned, these didn’t look like the same old stumbling, bumbling Browns mired in 2 decades of misery.
“I watched our football team fight and play,” head coach Hue Jackson said after the game. “There is grit, there is toughness, and there are things that we have talked about that I have seen and that I needed to see as a head coach from the beginning, and it has shown itself. Now, we just have to take it to another level.”
Kizer and the defense were a big reason why.
Kizer, who was the third-youngest QB to start in Week 1 since 1963, finished 20-of-30 passes for 220 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his NFL regular season debut. Although he struggled with reading pressure and timing while being sacked 7 times, Kizer showed off his strong arm and even poise which has so many within the Browns so excited about his future.
“I like DeShone,” Jackson said. “He did some good things. There are some opportunities that he is going to be the first to tell you he wish he had back. That is going to happen to a young quarterback, but this guy gave us a chance.”
After a slow start on their first 2 offensive possessions, Kizer put together an impressive 12-play drive that saw him convert a pair of third downs – 1 with a 14-yard completion to Duke Johnson and the second a run up the middle – which he capped with a 1-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7.
“Obviously, it was at the point of the game where we needed some momentum to turn back after a special teams touchdown,” Kizer said. “It is up to us on offense to make sure that we go out there and swing things back our way. A little energy afterwards is also good for the team.”
Kizer’s first touchdown throw came with 3:36 left in the fourth quarter when he hit Corey Coleman on a quick slant that came on fourth-and-goal at the 3 to make it 21-16 before Isaiah Crowell ran in for the 2-point conversion to provide the final margin.
The 21-year old’s debut was good, but it wasn’t perfect.
He took 7 sacks and a couple of hard shots – 2 of them from Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier – but came out in 1 piece. He also was intercepted in the third quarter looking for receiver Kasen Williams up the near sideline. Kizer failed to see Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt – the younger brother of Texas star defensive end J.J. Watt – who jumped up to pick the ball off at the 17 and return it 17 yards, ending a promising drive with the Browns trailing 21-10.
“An athletic, defensive end/linebacker hybrid went up and got one on me,” Kizer said. “I am trying to put the ball over top of him. Obviously, this is all going to be a learning process. These guys who are stepping out there, who I am playing against are quite athletic and he goes up and makes a good play on the ball.”
Kizer also didn’t get help on a pair of key throws that ended in incompletions and short-circuited a pair of posessions.
Receiver Kasen Williams was unable to stay inbounds on a deep throw up the near sideline on a second-and-9 from the Pittsburgh 40 with 7:35 left in the first half and in the fourth quarter Kenny Britt dropped a football over the middle that hit him right in the hands. Two plays after both missed connections, the Browns punted after squandering opportunities for big gains.
“Everybody has to help him out,” Jackson said. “This is about helping a young quarterback. We do have a young quarterback so everybody has to make plays when you have an opportunity to make them.”
The newly revamped defense under Gregg Williams held their own forcing 6 punts – including three 3-and-outs – and an interception. Two of Pittsburgh’s 3 scores were set up by big plays – a 50-yard completion on a ball that was tipped to Antonio Brown and a 41-yard pass interference penalty against Browns cornerback Jamar Taylor.
Brown caught all 11 of his targets from Ben Roethlisberger for 182 yards, including a 38-yard catch in traffic late in the fourth quarter that sealed the victory.
“It was a fun matchup for me,” Taylor said. “I love competition, so we were going at it. He had a couple quick throws where we’ve just got to get him down, but other than that down the field, for the most part, we were good until he had that one crazy catch – he had two because he had a tip. It was fun going against him. He’s one of the best in the league, so I was looking forward to that one.”
Roethlisberger threw for 263 yards and completed 24 of 36 passes, including a pair of touchdowns to tight end Jessee James.
If only the Browns could have that blocked punt by Steelers linebacker Tyler Matakevich which fellow linebacker Anthoy Chickillo fell on in the endzone back.
“It was huge,” Jackson said. “Obviously, that is kind of the difference in the game when you look back. The momentum switched.”
But it didn’t snowball into an avalanche, which for the young Browns was a step in the right direction.
Even in defeat.